Persons of interest

One of my readers (Hi Chris) sent me an email regarding the use of’people as opposed to persons. I have been doing some research and my first skim tells me that it is mainly a personal choice, however on some further deeper reading it appears that opinion is divided on what is the proper usage.

Some deride persons as being outdated and old fashioned, others say that it is the logical plural use of the word person.

Often people is used as the logical plural of person and this is wrong, as the two words derive from different latin roots and do not mean the same thing; the former from populum, referring to the people in the sense of the populace, the latter from persona, “an actor’s mask; a character in a play” and which in the English form person, came to refer to an individual human being.

The proper plural of person is persons, however it appears that writers from the time of Chaucer onwards have been using people as a plural for person, not only to mean in the general sense of a mass of uncountable individuals, but also in a specific sense where numbers were countable.

This persisted until around Victorian times, when for some reason the Victorians rebelled agaisnt this and decided that the plural of person is persons when a specific, countable number of individuals is meant, but that people should be used when the number is large or indefinite.

However modern style guides, those pesky creatures, disagree; as they can point to any number of examples where they can use people as the plural of person in both situations.

Persons seems to survive mainly in a legal context, you often hear the Police wanting to talk to “persons of interest” or “so and and so was killed by person or persons unknown“. Persons seems to be a very formal and somewhat clunky word in this modern time. So this is why it seems to have fallen out of favour, with people replacing it.

The popularity of people is increasing as persons falls into disuse, though from the outset even though people is the singular collective term, it seems to have always been used to describe plural as well. It’s a very versatile word and depending on the context can mean one group, or it can mean a whole collective of groups.

This particular usage of people has become second nature to most and so the singular form of people as in “this people is lonely” seems just as clunky and outdated as persons.

The use of peoples as the plural of people has in the past been derided as an uncouth word, but it has gained popularity of late and is now considered a legitimate use of the word e.g:  “the peoples of this land are many and diverse“.

I hope that helps Chris in some small way, thanks for the interesting idea, much appreciated.

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